Monday, November 16, 2009

Santa is officially in town!

For those of you who haven't experienced the holidays in Europe, you might be surprised by a few of the quirky traditions they have over here.

Yesterday was just another average grey-skied Amsterdam Sunday when out of the blue, I hear the sounds of a high school marching band pounding away on the street.
I live off of the Vijzlestraat, which is a fairly central avenue used by almost everybody, including Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas is the Euro equivalent of Santa. He's got the characteristic white beard and comes bearing gifts. But the Dutch Santa has a much more unique background. This guy is arriving with his horses fresh off a steamboat from Spain - and this spectacle down below is his welcoming party.

Now, this scene is basically your standard scaled down Macy's parade, with small
floats pulled by little Euro-sized trucks. But, there is one thing that makes this parade a complete spectacle - and it's called Zwarte Piet.

This guy is a little black coloured Sinterklaas helper who used to be the right hand guy. Today, there are a bunch of little Zwarte Piets, just like the elves troop Santa Clause rolls with. But, these guys are all decked out with black painted faces.
That's right, black face!
It's really quite the thing to see good ol' Mister Santa come to town followed by a crew of little black-painted faces, but he does, and it is completely normal here. Many others would balk at the idea, with easy throwbacks to the slave trade and what not. And, there are many such stories to explain the painted faces, but most of us just accept he got that way from climbing down chimneys - with Sint's presents of course!

And truth be told, everybody loves these little characters. Particularly by the children who sing Sinterklaas songs with them in exchange for handfuls of pepernoten.

Out on the street with the children, Santa, and his parade of Piets, I couldn't help but be filled with a little Christmas spirit. But, not too much. I'm an American after all, and we do Thanksgiving first!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bock beer festival: Education meets inebriation

Man, do I love a good beer festival. Any opportunity to mix great beers and the pretense of learning about booze is my own personal paradise.
My first taste of beer sampling shenanigans was back in my Boston days at the annual Beer Summit. Each year my friends and I would meet for an excess of drinking that gave us the gumption to ask stupid questions like 'what's a hop'? or declare a beer to 'taste like candy!'
These festivals were also where I found my love for European brews, so naturally I was psyched to hear that Amsterdam hosted a yearly bock beer festival.
Bock beer is a seasonal brew, which oftentimes reminds me of the many October-themed American beer variations that come out about now (think Sam Adams' Octoberfest). Flowing freely from the taps that virtually lined the 1900's commodities exchange building, the Beurs van Berlage, bock beer was the topic of debate among me and my beer drinking buddies this evening.
We did our best to maintain a beer tasting guide, with witty comments ranging from "carmelised sweetness" for the amber coloured Phoenix Sofie HerftstBock form Het Klaverblad brewery to "like a dirty malt" for the Ossenbock out of Massland brewery.
As the night wore on, and our tastes were simultaneously subdued and sublime, we resorted to a few simple "No!" ratings and even one "YUCK" for an unnamed bock that did not go down well with
our trio.
But my favourite of the evening was a special double bock that I convinced an experienced silver-haired brewer to share with me. "It's a double bock," he warned, squinting. "I can handle it," I assured him.
And indeed I could - Jopen brewery's 4 Granen Bok Bier was my best in show!

The bock beer festival is held annually in Amsterdam, but it's just one of a number of beer drinking events organised by the Netherlands' PINT association. Bringing the best of beer to its members with various tastings, festivals, and other beer excursions, their events section is the number one place for beer connoisseurs to plan their Dutch drinking adventures.

PINT Association
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Chairmen Jeroen Carol-Visser
+31 (0)64 823 4294

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Holland Times ships me off - to Slovenia!

I'm not too shy to admit I previously had no clue about where in the world Slovenia is located. I guess my 8th grade geography skills aren't what they used to be.
Being an American in Amsterdam, however, you're not really expected to be too geo-savvy, but I was surprised to learn that even my European counterparts were equally map unfriendly. Apparently Slovenia conjures up borders with anything from Russia to Poland, according to my colleagues.
In fact, Slovnia is situated between Italy and Croatia. A mountainous country with access to anything from exquisite beaches to breathtaking natural landscapes - the country is a sleeping beauty.

I spent the past weekend in Bovec, a two hour's drive outside the country's capital, Ljubljana. The area is a basin in the Soča Valley below the Kanin mountain in the Julian Alps.

Bovec is basically an adventure traveler's wet dream, boasting anything from rafting, kayaking and hydrospeeding to mountain biking and hiking in the emerald blue, freshwater Soca river. Now, I'm not the sporty type, and I'm certainly not one for outdoor adventures, but I was offered the opportunity to join a canyoning expedition by the Bovec Rafting Team Director, Adis Hrovat, and I couldn't resist.
Maybe it was Adis who convinced me it was the ultimate experience, or the gentleman I met from Britain who advised me, "never pass up an invitation, especially when abroad," that gave me the psychological push I needed, but at noon on a sunny Sunday in October, I set off to the Susec gorge for my most extreme outdoor adventure experience.

Canyoning is a type of travelling within canyons that involves jumping from cliffs into river pools, or sliding down waterfalls to make your way down a mountain.
Because I was a last minute addition to the trip, I was grouped with a crew of lovely Italian men, celebrating a friend's 30th birthday with a trip to the gorge.
We layered up in wetsuits and protective gear, and set off on a 25 minute hike up the mountain side.

Now, if you've ever worn a wetsuit and been hiking, you know that sweat is locked in your suit, and you can literally feel it rolling down your arms and legs. It's a unique feeling.
As we got higher and higher up the mountain, that gorgeous blue-green water was literally calling my name, and I was about ready to dive in. But our first stop wasn't a dive at all - it was a 3-meter leap into a churning pool of crystal water.

And this, my friends, was just the beginning. For nearly two hours, the Italian crew and I lept, slipped, swam, and climbed our way down the mountainside. The finale being a 12-meter waterfall slide to the bottom - the tallest canyoning slide in Slovenia.
From my side of the falls, this looked like an impossible challenge. But I stood by, shivering from the cold 12 degree river - or from nervousness, as my five journeymen showed me how crazy and cool this drop was.

Between screams of joy and fright, I watched each guy make the descent, huge smiles and thumbs-up shot back to me.
The guide, a forgiving and experienced local, assured me that I didn't have to make the drop, he could walk me to the bottom safe and sound. "No girls ever do this drop," he told me.
Looking down at my five male adventure counterparts, I wasn't going to chicken out.
Arms crossed and legs locked, I took the slide. While part of me squealed with excitement, the other screamed in panic - the freefall as just long enough to realize how far and fast I was plunging.
I crashed into the water, pausing; a moment of sheer relief at surviving, and then swam to the top. Greeted with five smiles, thumbs-up, and whoops of congratulations - we made it!

I don't think I'll ever have the courage to do anything like this again, but I know that the gorgeous Soca river and the fantastic people there will tempt me again someday with new and more challenging adventures - and I could never turn them down!

T: +386 5 388-61-28
M: +386 41/338-308
Address: Mala vas 106, 5230 Bovec

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Best Fries in Town

I don't know about you, but I remember many a time sitting in a restaurant in good ol' southern New Jersey, and ordering my fries, "extra crispy." It's a diner town I'm from, so I think they know what that means.

Well, now I live in Amsterdam, a city devoid of proper diners. It's a pity. But for what they lack in 24-hour breakfast options, they make up for in the perfect french fry.

Okay, 'french fry' is probably not the best way to describe these things; 'freedom fry' definitely off base. These puppies are vegetarian fried Vlaamse frites. Twice fried to perfection, these potato delights are served in this city all the time. In cute, paper made cups, they come with the most tantalising array of delicious mayo-based sauces.

I know many would balk at the idea of dipping a fry in a mound of fatty mayo sauce (it's usually served with a heavy hand), but I say to them - don't knock it till you try it!

As soon as you hit the city after Centraal Station, you are basically inundated with fry operations. The most significant of which is Manneken Pis on the Damrak. I read elsewhere on the world wide web that someone rated this place as the second best in town. I said " whaaaat?" I disagree and wonder if the author ever went there. They give a nice glob of mayo (I like a lot), but the fries are just crappy. They're you're typical not well done, not unwell done fry. Lackluster to say the least, and I also sensed they arrived frozen. No good.

To actually experience the best fry in Amsterdam, arguably the best fry in the world, you have to dig a bit deeper than the city's main drag. You have to brave the brick labrynth-like side streets of the most notoriously crowded shopping streets to find THE fries of your life.

Located on a cut called Voetboogstraat, this place is easy to miss. Especially if you've experienced the Dampkring, just around the corner, then even mad munchies wouldn't get you there.

This vegetarian frites palace, known by the red awning over a modest sign: Vleminckx Sausmeesters. This, my friends, is the best fry joint in town.

Now, anything anno 1887 in Amsterdam is worth checking out. Remember, this city was basically at it's peak throughout the 19th century, this place is old - and still in operation. If the date isn't enough to convince you of its greatness, just check out the never absent line.

People young and old, fresh and foreign, local and homeless are in line for these Vlaamse frites. And, throwing up the title of sauce master is a pretty bold claim - that they live up to.

I know my favorite is the samauri sauce (think: spicy mayo), but I've just recently been introduced to spicy green pepper (awesome), and the fact that they allegedly have the best satay sauce in town (satay is a kind of pad-thai like peanut sauce, very popular here).

What's great about fries here is that they don't cost you a fortune. They're filling, delicious, and run you less than 3 euors for a klein (that's small in Dutch, and lets face it folks, you don't need a large - called middel here, oddly enough).

At this point, my own mouth is watering and I'm ready to run to their shop and grab a snack. For better or worse this spot is only open during shopping hours - 11.00 to 18.00 during the week, and a few hours on Sundays. Which is a blessing, and a curse. If I wasn't always at work, I have a feeling I'd be much more overweight.

Don't take my word for it - try them yourselves. You will be surprised how amazing a simple fried potato can actually be - with mayo on it! And don't be surprised if once you return home, you fries never taste the same.

Vleminckx Sausmeesters
Address: Voetboogstraat 31, just off the Spui
Open: Mon-Sat. 11am-6pm, Sun. 12pm-5:30pm

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